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Bangkok 8: A Fun Summer Read, Even in the Fall

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There's a long tradition of Western murder mysteries set in exotic Eastern countries: Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko novels (set in the Soviet Union, Russia, and Ukraine), James Church's Inspector O novels (set in North Korea), Michael Walters's Nergui novels (set in Mongolia), and John Burdett's Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels (set in Thailand). These novels share a common formula: the main characters are intelligent native investigators, loyal to their country, honest to a fault, but educated enough to know English, and they use a mixture of their traditional upbringing and knowledge of the Western world to solve a brutal murder. Without any pretensions to being serious literature, these sequel-ready series are enjoyable romps through the seedy underbellies of sex and violence of a country most readers will never visit, and sameness isn't really a problem -- when it comes to sex and violence, there's nothing wrong with a little repetition.

Bangkok 8 (2003) is the first of Burdett's Thai murder mysteries. Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Thai police officer and devout Buddhist who refuses to accept bribes or be deterred from the pursuit of justice. He's also half-Thai and half-white, a lovechild of a Thai prostitute and an American GI, so despite his piety he isn't burdened by excessive moral indignation. He's trying to solve a murder of an American sergeant stationed in Bangkok who's killed by a poisonous snake -- a murder weapon that kills Sonchai's partner in the course of the investigation. Sonchai is, therefore, motivated both by love and justice.

Burdett is fully aware of his colleagues in the exotic murder-mystery business; in 2004, he reviewed Martin Cruz Smith's novel Wolves Eat Dogs (rating: 80), the fifth in the Arkady Renko series, for the Washington Post. Sonchai isn't as subtle a character as Renko (or James Church's Inspector O, whose North Korean patience borders on languor), but neither is his country: in Burdett's telling, Thailand is all spice and sensuality, richly ironic and deeply corrupt, with no shame in sex and very little in crime. It's too superfluous to sink deeply beneath a reader's skin, but too fun for the reader to mind.

The best murder mysteries transcend the nasty fun of genre's strictures and stay with the reader long past the final period, from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (rating: 95) to Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park (rating: 85). Bangkok 8 isn't in that echelon. It's like candy: good until it's gone, and barely a memory afterwards. Fast reads are often thought of as "summer" books because you can read them on the beach with your brain turned off. But there's no bad time to give your brain a vacation. You can read Bangkok 8 in any weather -- just don't expect the fun to last.

Rating: 78

Crossposted to Remingtonstein.